Literary Fiction Genres
Genres Hu - Mu
Fiction Genre Definitions
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(Definitions and Examples)
It's challenging to find, and then clearly define, and especially to give distinct examples for, every genre and subgenre. It's not always easy to draw a line between prose literature and other forms of fiction. Many popular stories begin as legends, or stage plays, or even as poems, and are then made into novels. Some of those novels (or plays) become movies. Many genre movies are novelized, while a few are adapted into stage plays. All in all, this makes the entire topic rather complicated, and interesting.
Humor or Comedy (black or dark comedy, comedy of humours*, comedy of manners, romp, screwball, sentimental*, slapstick)
This is a huge genre, though hardly dominant. These beloved tales invoke happy emotions, which are both familiar and hard to pin down. Written comedy is handled differently than filmed or live-action, and it's difficult to master, whether based upon real life or imagined situations. Graeme C. Simsion's novel The Rosie Project is a popular example, and Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City a famous one.
Black or dark comedy involves matters normally considered taboo, and is thus rather edgy. MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, by Hornberger and Heinz, is a beloved (and much expanded upon) example; while The Devil's Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce, remains a classic.
Comedy of humours* is an old subgenre. These stories focus upon a few dramatic, memorable characters. Each has some peculiar trait (or 'humor') which dominates their personality. The 16th century plays of Ben Jonson are frequently mentioned in this regard.
A 'comedy of manners' depicts (usually in a satirical way) the upper classes of society, with emphasis on their distinctive mannerisms. These began with the plays of the Classical Greek Menander, and they've been skewering numerous societies ever since. Quick wit and sharp commentary flourish, and the works of Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham fit the bill perfectly.
A comedic romp has much crossover with 'over the top, realistic' fiction. These are light-hearted, energetic depictions of everyday life and characters. Mark Twain's novel Roughing It is a classic example. Judith Viorst's 'picture book' Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is a great example, which has become a play and movie.
The screwball comedy is a narrow descriptive subgenre, with specific tropes and formatting. Usually the uptight main character meets some outrageous individual, and thus situations, and is broken out of their psychological shell. John Kessel's novel Corrupting Dr. Nice, which overlaps with 'science fiction,' is a clear example. Numerous movies also fit the bill, beginning with Frank Capra's It Happened One Night.
Sentimental* comedy is an older subgenre, with novels and plays which depict the main character overcoming a series of moral trials. This involves a dry humor, with tear-evoking triumphs. Sir Richard Steele's 1722 play The Conscious Lovers is an early example. Jane Austin's novel Pride and Prejudice is often mentioned in this regard.
Slapstick humor is blatant, with exaggerated physicality, such as the familiar slip-on-a-banana-peel gag. Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slapstick is an obvious example, as are countless comedy films.
Hysterical Realism is a new descriptive term, for a very small subgenre. It overlaps with 'postmodernism' and examines real social events, but with a fancy-yet-offbeat style, not to mention political overtones and voluble wordiness. Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex and Viken Berberian's The Cyclist are two such novels.
Inspirational literature, and its fiction aspect especially, is becoming a distinct genre. These tales are, of course, meant to inspire the reader. There's an overlap with the 'Christian' genre, however many of these books are more generally spiritual. Classics include Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel Quo Vadis, later filmed by Mervyn LeRoy. Modern examples include Michael Gurrian's novel "The Miracle: A Visionary Novel, and William Paul Young's The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity is another.
This busy type of fiction is a new genre, has to be, as it's based upon computerized texts. Each reader is given the option of selecting from two or more choices, at multiple points within the story, each of which leads to a different plot path. Computer games pioneered this genre, and its literary content has slowly grown. As the reader is directly addressed, many of these are written in the rare Second Person point of view. The first such tale was Colossal Cave Adventure, by Will Crowther and Don Woods. Some scholars assert that nonlinear-style print novels, such as Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, also qualify.
Hypertext fiction is a descriptive subset of this genre, which is based upon the world wide web and its embedded links, creating a smoother reading experience. Paul La Farge's Luminous Airplanes is a recent example. (The earliest examples utilized Hypercard and other simple programs.)
Invasion Literature overlaps with 'alternate history,' and narrowly focuses upon imaginary invasions of a given country. The British launched, and continue to dominate, this genre. The first such novel was George Tomkyns Chesney's 1871 short novel The Battle of Dorking, and it reflects the fears of a war-weary Europe. Jerry Sohl's novel Point Ultimate overlaps with 'science fiction' and brings the genre into the Cold War, while the John Milius film Red Dawn depicts partisan resistence.
Lab Lit is similar to, yet distinct from, 'science fiction, mundane.' This tiny new genre centers upon present-day, realistic scientists, and science-based drama. Biologist Jennifer Rohn is credited with launching this genre, and her own novel Experimental Heart was its first member. Carl Djerassi's novel No is another early example.
Lad or Guy Lit is a new and small genre, which is struggling to gain legitimacy. These stories are generally written by men, and center upon young men and their (mostly self-inflicted) troubles. Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity is an oft-mentioned example, and Mike Gayle's My Legendary Girlfriend another.
Latino or Hispanic (transborder)
This is a descriptive genre, for works that are (with a few exceptions) written by Hispanic authors about their own culture. Otherwise, these overlap with almost every major genre. The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros, is one example, and Days of Awe, by Achy Obejas, another. (Some of these tales are written in Spanish, within the USA or elsewhere, often read without translation; however, some are first written in English.)
Transborder fiction is a small subgenre, focused on contemporary life along the US-Mexican border. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz, is a 'young adult, gay' novel set in El Paso, while Tricia Fields' The Territory overlaps as a 'mystery' novel.
Literary Fiction is a broad description, with stories known for their evocative and skillful writing, as distinct from 'genre' fiction with its familiar styles and tropes. A beloved example is Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird, with its simple, homespun characters. A contrasting example is Cormac McCarthy's ultra-violent novel Blood Meridian, which is written with sentence fragments, but also 80+ word sentences, plenty of obscure or modified words, yet almost no conventional punctuation. (In many cases an author becomes famous as a wordsmith, and then all of their work is regarded as literary.)
Magical Realism was launched as a genre by several Latin American authors, and it brings strange yet unquestioned elements into everyday life. Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 'literary' novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (in Spanish plus translations) brought this small genre to prominence, while Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony is another example. Much of Japanese 'science fiction' has a strong overlap: short stories by Kobo Abe, Shinichi Hoshi, Ryo Hanmura, and others have a similar dreamy aspect.
Mainstream or Blockbuster fiction is a descriptive (actually more of a functional) term, and it overlaps with every popular genre. It refers to novels which are best-sellers, or at least, are pushed hard to become such, by large big-budget publishing houses. In modern times, becoming a movie is almost expected. Rarely, an obscure book will catch hold via good reviews and word-of-mouth, and become a blockbuster. Scholars say the first was probably a young Charles Dickens's novel The Pickwick Papers, with its widely-anticipated installments, vivid illustrations, spinoffs and pirate editions, branded merchandise, and more. (The attention now seems to be on how to write the next big hit, rather than appreciating the books which already are.)
Maritime or Nautical (journey, marooned)
This genre involves life on the sea, usually with some 'adventure' along the way. These might be about past centuries or the present day, with military or merchant or amateur sailors. Rudyard Kipling's novel Captains Courageous is a classic example, and Melville's Moby Dick another. Sebastian Junger's novel The Perfect Storm, filmed by Wolfgang Petersen, is a modern example.
The journey subgenre involves a specific quest or destination, as reached by sea. Diana Gabaldon's novel Voyager is a popular example.
The marooned subgenre can overlap with the old 'Stevensonade' subgenre, but can be much darker, as with William Golding's novel The Lord of the Flies. Martin Caidin's novel Marooned brings this subgenre into outer space.
Melodrama fiction takes realistic characters and situations, and magnifies them, though not (as in the 'over the top' subgenre) with an agenda, or in outrageous ways. Rather, these stories openly appeal to the reader's emotions. This is often boosted by including blatantly-stereotyped characters, and exaggerated plot twists. The genre originated in the 1770s, with plays such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Pygmalion. Scholars contend that melodramas are now less popular in English-language fiction, however continue to flourish in Spanish-language, Bollywood, and various other outlets. (Actual current examples, from major publishers, are difficult to find.)
Military Action or War Stories (fictional settings, real settings; near future)
Military fiction depicts individual soldiers, and realistic battle, and sometimes geopolitics. Stephen Crane's 1894 novel The Red Badge of Courage vividly portrays the action and psychology of the Civil War. (Even though the author himself had not been in combat.) A (much less common) modern example, which centers on combat in Iraq, is Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain.
Some fictional setting war novels focus on each soldier's experience, but leave out an actual location, thus speaking more broadly of war itself. Norman Mailer's classic novel The Naked and the Dead illustrates World War Two via the fictional Anopopei Island, and it's none too flattering. The Caine Mutiny, by Herman Wouk, is set aboard a fictional Navy vessel.
Real setting novels will sometimes dramatize actual battles, aided by modern record-keeping and film archives, etc. Karl Marlantes' novel Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War and The 13th Valley, by John M. Del Vecchio, are clear examples. Hollywood has made countless such war movies, with Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan acclaimed as the most realistic.
The near future subgenre sometimes overlaps with 'technothriller' stories, though not so distant as 'science fiction, military' tales; and they're not always optimistic, much less victorious. Dragon Strike -- A Novel of the Coming War with China, by Humphrey Hawksley and Simon Holberton, is one example.
Minimalist is a small descriptive genres, which overlaps with many others. These are mostly short stories, written in a terse and spare style, with context taking the place of detailed descriptions. Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk, is a popular example. The works of Raymond Carver are often mentioned.
Musical fiction is all about musicians, their art, and their personal struggles, usually depicted in a 'literary' style. It's difficult to write well about music, and there aren't many such works. Music and Silence, by Rose Tremain, is set in 17th century Copenhagen. The Loser, by Thomas Bernhard, is another example. In reverse order, Bobbie Gentry's hit song "Ode to Billie Joe" was made into a movie by Max Baer.
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Literary Fiction Genres